By Philip Booth
Swampy funk-rock is at the heart of the sound sported by JJ Grey and Mofro, making the Jacksonville-based band a perfect fit at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa this weekend.
The group's infectious grooves, variously hinting at vintage soul, country and R&B, often celebrate the history and natural beauty of the Sunshine State while decrying overdevelopment. Orange Blossoms, the title track from this year's CD, and Ybor City follow those lines, as does Florida on the band's 2001 debut, Blackwater.
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist JJ Grey heads a six-piece lineup featuring guitarist Daryl Hance, bassist/organist Adam Scone, drummer Anthony Cole, tenor saxophonist Art Edmaiston and trumpeter Dennis Marion.
When not on the road, Grey lives on his grandparents' farm, his permanent residence since 2000. There, he works on songs and tends to 50 pecan trees. On the day of his interview with the Times, he had injured his left (fretting) hand while unloading a bush hog mower from the back of a tractor. "I'll just do more songs on piano," he said.
You've led several lineups of Mofro. How are things going with this band?
When I write a tune I arrange it, like I've always done. But now I can say, "Can you get with this feel this way?" and they can do it. They can get it done. It's a great feeling when you don't have to think about what other people are doing. I don't have to micromanage (their) playing. Over the years, I'd maybe see a Buddy Guy or a Willie Nelson. And I thought, it'd be great to play with a band like that, that can just play the tunes, get the pocket, jam, get everything all in one. Now I feel like I have one of those bands.
Were there models for the kind of band you had in mind?
Bill Withers' band, Donny Hathaway's band, Stevie Wonder's band — they play the tunes these guys write, and they can jam. My favorite records are the ones where the people playing get it and they disappear onstage and it sounds like one big sound that's just a thrill to be a part of.
Mofro draws from such a wide variety of influences. What do your favorite musicians have in common?
The common thread for me is that it's all got soul. Jerry Reed's got soul. For that matter, I don't care about heavy metal, but I heard Metallica and I thought, "Them dudes got soul." It's not a genre so much as it's a feeling or a vibe.
Orange Blossoms has a richer sound, with horns and strings. Did you write the music with that in mind?
One Boston reviewer was mad about the strings and horns, and said I was getting away from my Tony Joe White roots. But I had never listened to Tony Joe White until after the first session of Blackwater was done. I arranged horn parts for all the songs, before Blackwater came out. I would have always had strings and horns over all the records if I could have afforded it.
Philip Booth writes about music for Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and other publications.